More and Less is a monthly column that explores sustainability and conscious consumption when planning a wedding and also building a life with someone.
Last month I claimed this final chapter of the jewelry series would be on ‘everything else.’ Foolhardy, to say the least. Especially working as I do for a small jewelry company that partners with artisans in Haiti to upcycle unconventional materials like steel and horn, I should have been fully in touch with the fact that jewelry can be created out of almost anything.
What I should have said is that we’d be looking at some other common metals used for wedding bands and a couple other gemstone alternatives to diamonds. So know that this is by no means the real Everything Else. There are possibilities of all kinds that can be used to make jewelry. I just had to give myself a little more focus, or this column would have gone on for days.
Many of the problems with mining metals and colored gemstones are contiguous with mining gold and diamonds, so if you missed those columns you can find the one on gold here and diamonds here.
Let’s start with a couple of metals you might be curious about using for rings.
Pure silver is too soft for most uses, so it is alloyed with other metals to increase strength. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver and 7.5% of other metal alloys—typically copper. Silver is a soft metal (yes, it’s true that gold is even softer, but 14k gold, for example, is 58% gold alloyed with other metals), so the surface of sterling silver will be affected as it’s worn out in the world. Sterling silver is a great choice if you know you are hoping to invest in different rings at some point, if you know you don’t intend to wear your ring generally, or if you are someone who loves the way objects change over time. With These Rings Handmade has a more in-depth explanation and some images to help you get an idea if silver is for you. If you are leaning toward silver, one of the great things about it is that it’s easy to find recycled sterling silver—avoiding the environmental degradation caused by mining for new metal. It’s definitely worth noting that silver is also a much less expensive option than gold and other precious metals. There is also Argentium Silver, a variant of sterling silver, which has a slightly higher silver content than sterling silver and is certified reclaimed and nickel free.
Palladium and Platinum
Recently recognized as precious metal, palladium has a white gold appearance, will not tarnish over time, and is hypoallerginic. It’s lighter than other comparable metals, which, depending on your preferences, might be a pro or a con. Platinum is very rare and very expensive. But it is extremely durable and requires very little maintenance. Palladium and platinum are not quite as easy to come by as silver and gold, but most jewelers that specialize in wedding jewelry do work with them, and they are also available as alloys with silver and gold. Both of them are available in recycled versions if you seek them out.
There are, of course, others! And while we’re on the topic of bands, this is a good moment to mention that most jewelry designers recommend removing your rings at night when your hands swell. It’s good to give your skin a chance to breathe! In fact, some people mistake the redness and irritation that can occur from trapped moisture due to overlong wear for metal allergies.
On to gemstones.
Gemstones other than diamonds raise many of the same ethical and environmental concerns as diamonds. In some ways, they can be trickier because there has not been the same widespread public awareness of their worrisome origins. As with diamonds, the mining for other gemstones does not involve the same toxic and polluting chemicals employed in gold mining. However, elsewhere in the process, the workers are often in peril. From the standing water left behind at mine sites that can harbor dysentery and malaria, to the forced labor and child labor practices, many phases of the process compromise human health. Eric Braunwart, founder of Columbia Gem House, warns that “there are probably many more people dying in [the gemstone industry] from the cutting end than the mining end.” The gemstone cutters frequently contract deadly lung diseases from workplace exposure: an estimated 30% of all gemstone grinders will die of silicosis according to the National Labor Committee in 2010. Along with the dangers to human health and the health of communities, there is an environmental cost to mining. Though gemstones are typically in the upper 10 meters of the earth’s surface, there is still considerable deforestation and environmental disruption. And like diamonds, other gemstones are entangled in civil unrest and violence.
The ethical jewelry activist Marc Choyt emphasizes that if only 5% of consumers insisted upon traceable and ethical gemstones the international impact would be considerable. One of the very best routes is to go with an antique or reclaimed stone. There are also some good options available where mines are working to extract gems in a less detrimental way that can help the local community.
One of the biggest considerations for a gemstone in a ring is the durability of the stone. Sapphires are a great stone to consider as a diamond alternative given their hardness. Kate Middleton’s blue sapphire engagement ring caused an uptick in interest in sapphires but they’re also one of the gemstones that is available from traceable sources. There are many color variations of sapphires, and funnily enough the colorless sapphires, which look similar to diamonds, are less expensive than blue sapphires despite the fact that they are rarer. You can find sapphires mined and cut in the United States that originate from Montana.
Aide Memoire, a jewelry partner of Catalyst working to create ethical wedding bands and engagement rings, has an awesome compendium of colored gemstones on their blog. If you have your heart set on another gemstone, keep in mind that just because it is not as resilient as a diamond, there are ways jewelers can set the stone to protect it more from wear. Bezel or flush-setting a stone means it is more guarded.
This is also a good moment to reiterate that an engagement or wedding ring doesn’t need to look any particular way—the diamond engagement ring is a recent and marketing driven enterprise, and some accounts also point to a rise alongside the banning of “breach of promise to marry” lawsuits beginning in the 1930s. The ring does not even need to be a ring. Many stones that aren’t durable enough to wear everyday as a ring will be perfectly happy as a pendant or earrings. So keep in mind the nearly limitless possibilities—as I said at the outset, this is really not Everything Else.
Rebecca Perea-Kane is a writer and designer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She spends her time working on her jewelry line, Thicket, traipsing through the woods with her dog, Arthur, practicing yoga, and writing poetry. She works as the production manager for Mi Ossa, a jewelry and leather goods company.